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City may shorten ambulance provider workweeks

Thursday, August 20, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services ambulance providers are under a lot of strain as they try to keep up with population growth and an increasing number of special events, but a new proposal could reduce some of that pressure.

On Aug. 12, City Council discussed the possibility of amending the proposed Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget to include one of several plans that would shorten the workweek for uniformed field operations personnel from 48 hours to 42 hours.

Council Member Delia Garza, a former firefighter, said that she would like to bring a proposal forward during budget deliberations as a budget amendment.

“I’m a big supporter,” she said, “and I don’t know if I can do it now, but I’d like to add that budget amendment.”

Council Member Leslie Pool asked staff to determine how much it would cost to reduce the workweek even further to 40 hours.

Garza told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday why she supports the idea. “I hope this will reduce their workload and stress level,” she said of ambulance providers.

“I don’t think it’s safe when we have medics and emergency medical technicians driving around on very little sleep,” Garza continued. “We’re not really providing a good service to our Austinites when we know of a situation like that, and then we’re just letting it go on.”

EMS Assistant Chief of Operations Jasper Brown told the Monitor on Monday why he believes the plan would benefit personnel. “It shortens their workweek by six hours, which lessens the number of times they’re exposed to basically the volume, the stresses that they encounter daily, and it provides additional time away from work,” he said.

Anthony Marquardt, president of the Austin-Travis County EMS Association, told the Monitor on Monday that he also supports the workweek transition.

“We’re asking for additional personnel outside of expanding the needed resources like ambulances and stations. Hopefully, working with the policymakers, we’ll get caught up and develop a substantial plan to identify how we can add resources in the main budget that makes sense and keeps up with population,” Marquardt said.

“The call volume is at record highs – we hit the 500 and 600 mark regularly,” Marquardt continued. “We’re also experiencing a rise in what management likes to call ‘accumulative overtime’ – unscheduled overtime based on the city’s charter for essential personnel. It’s essentially emergency staffing, so management is declaring an emergency on a regular basis.”

Kerri Lang, EMS assistant director of administration and finance, told the Monitor on Monday that management has developed several funding plans that would ultimately accomplish the transition over the course of one, two or three years by hiring 15 new captains and 52 new medics to take on the lost hours. Some of these hires would occur through in-house promotions.

Captains function primarily as trainers for field operation personnel, though they also fill seats on ambulances. The 52 medics would include 20 entry-level Medic 1 positions and 32 more advanced Medic 2 positions.

The two medics who committed suicide in 2014 and 2015 were Medic 2 personnel.

If management were to make the transition in one fiscal year, it would cost a total of $5.8 million.

The two-year plan that management originally suggested would involve hiring 15 captains in the upcoming fiscal year at a cost of $1.5 million, followed by 52 medics in the following fiscal year at $4 million.

Another, more evenly split two-year plan would involve hiring 15 captains and 18 medics in the first year at $3.1 million and 34 medics in the second year at $2.7 million.

Either of the two-year plans, Brown said, would allow management to transition about one-third of its field units to the shorter workweek in the first year of the plan.

Brown explained why management presented a two-year plan over a one-year plan. “If you give it to us all in one year, we’d have to hire all those people, and we wouldn’t be able to transition people in the very beginning,” he said. “Basically you’d lose all those hours’ worth of work.”

Marquardt disagreed. “I think that one-year implementation is the ideal,” he said. “We are in a position where we actually need more ambulances and stations, and to add those would up our workload. So, we’re just catching up with the personnel, and I think the commitment to that from our policymakers says a lot to the front-line providers.”

Garza said that, for practical reasons, she’ll likely push for one of the two-year plans. “With the budget, we have to do just incremental steps sometimes, especially when it’s such a big transition. I think I have a better chance of getting support on the Council for the two-year versus the one-year plan,” she said. “I think the two-year is more doable at this point.”

A three-year plan would involve hiring 15 captains and eight medics in the first year at $2.3 million, 22 medics in the second year at $1.8 million and 22 medics in the third year at $1.8 million.

If Council chooses to adopt a plan to reduce personnel workweeks, it would not be the first time.

EMS Chief Ernesto Rodriguez said during the briefing that the department first transitioned the workweek for medics from 56 to 48 hours in 2006. In 2011 and 2012, the city transitioned its communications staff to 42-hour workweeks. Finally, in the current fiscal year, the department transitioned its front-line commanders from a 48- to 42-hour workweek.

The proposed EMS budget for the upcoming fiscal year consists of $77.1 million in spending, which includes nine months of funding for one new unit and 12 new paramedic positions.

The department’s service area covers all of the county and the city, including the portions of the city that overlap with other counties. The city pays for the EMS budget, and Travis County later partially reimburses the city per an interlocal agreement.

Since 2005, Rodriguez said, there has been a 29 percent increase in the population that EMS serves, a 50 percent increase in the number of EMS incidents and a 61 percent increase in its rate of transport. At the same time, response time has dropped from 13 to 10 minutes.

Rodriguez added that there has been a sharp increase in special events in Austin, which, he said, “weighs on EMS pretty heavily.”

Photo by Andreanna Moya Photography [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.

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